Inside the Growling Twister

Society of Physics Students/Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (or SPS/SEDS) at Florida Tech hosted our first Bad Science Movie Night of the school year. In this activity we watch a movie and everyone makes a list identifying any bad science they notice. After the movie, the lists are read out loud and whoever has the best list wins the prize. Some movies we have watched in the past include The Core, 2012 and Independence Day. This time we watched Twister, starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved this movie, but sitting down to watch it and purposefully looking for bad science puts it in a very different light. For example, some items on our list included:

  • Checking the direction of the wind won’t tell you where the tornado is going to form
  • Tornadoes don’t growl (the first one, seriously, was silent until it let out this weird growl as the characters drove toward it!)
  • The “magic” red truck that survives several water spouts, drives right up to several tornadoes of F3 and higher, gets hit with a semi-truck, drives through an explosion, drives through a house, and several other such phenomena and only has two cracks in the windshield the entire movie
  • the characters are able to outrun the giant F5 twister and manage not to get hit by a single piece of debris

For any prospective students out there, know these types of activities are great not just for the movie’s sake, but also for the chance to hang out with a bunch of nerdy people. We had several fantastic moments where someone would make some cross reference that everyone in the room understood because, well, we are all a bunch of dorks! For example, someone said something like “What, is she going to go up to the twister and shout ‘stop!’?” to which someone else responded with “YOU SHALL NOT TWIST!” For those of you who may not be as nerdy as we, that’s a Lord of the Rings reference.  Another such instance was when the antagonist got sucked up into a tornado after disregarding all the other characters’ warnings about him being too close. It just so happens, the actor playing him was Cary Elwes, better known as Wesley from The Princess Bride. As his truck was swept into the air, someone commented “That’s what he gets for being such an idiot” and someone else responded “As you wish!” Yep, good times . . .

The movie did have me wondering though – is it even possible to get into the eye of a tornado as the characters managed to do at the end of Twister? A Google search proved that there are, in fact, a few accounts from people who say they have seen the inside of a tornado. One such person is Will Keller from Greensburg, Kansas. In June 1928, three tornadoes dropped from an oncoming thunder cloud and Keller and his family headed for the shelter. Once his family was inside, Keller noticed the end of the tornado beginning to lift off the ground, so he decided to wait a little longer and watch it rather than duck into the shelter.

From a story in NOAA History: “I could have stood there only a few seconds, but so impressed was I with what was going on that it seemed a long time. At last the great shaggy end of the funnel hung directly overhead. Everything was as still as death. There was a strong gassy odor and it seemed that I could not breathe. There was a screaming, hissing sound coming directly from the end of the funnel. I looked up and to my astonishment I saw right up into the heart of the tornado . . . The walls of this opening were of rotating clouds and the whole was made brilliantly visible by constant flashes of lightning which zigzagged from side to side . . . Around the lower rim of the great vortex small tornadoes were constantly forming and breaking away. These looked like tails as they writhed their way around the end of the funnel.”

Another account on HowStuffWorks was given by Roy Hall, from McKinnet, Texas, in 1951. He was finding a place to hide in his house from the oncoming storm when there was sudden silence. The walls started to shake, and then his roof was ripped off by the wind. Looking up, he found himself staring up into the middle of the tornado. “He described the inside as a smooth wall of clouds, with smaller twisters swirling around the inside before breaking free . . . non-stop lightning created a bluish light, enabling him to see everything clearly. And then, just like that, the tornado passed and the sky turned sunny.”

While the end of Twister was still over-dramatized, we can’t make as much fun of the ending as we were because it turns out people actually have been inside a tornado and survived. It just goes to prove if you watch a movie critically, you never know what you may end up learning! Of course, we all do have to be careful and not believe everything we see on a screen. The trick is to learn how to discern the plausible from the implausible in everything we don’t have primary access to.

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